Most of us have read a book or two by John Steinbeck. Possibly The Peal – about an innocent man who finds a pearl of great value, and the heartbreak this discovery brings at the hands of evil men. Or Of Mice and Men – about two lonely migrant workers, George, who is both kindly and intelligent, and Lenny, who has the mind and reasoning capabilities of a child, but the strength of a giant.
Both sad stories.
Of all John Steinbeck’s books, though, his favorite (and mine) is East of Eden, a novel rarely mentioned when critics praise his work. In the dedication to his editor, Steinbeck wrote: “Nearly everything I have is in it … Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts – the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.”
I was re-reading East of Eden this week, probably for the tenth time, when I came upon a passage that sent shivers to my heart and reminded me of what it means to revere man’s greatness and his great potential. I have been starved for such reminders.
Because we are living in an era where intellectuals bully us into accepting “moral equivalency,” and treat objective standards and rational judgment as though they are dirty words.
Because we are living in a world where politicians, religious leaders, and hate-mongers capitulate to the demands of angry mobs.
And because our children are being taught to respect religions in which the individual is sacrificed, and all who dare to think, to satirize, to mock, to protest, and to disagree, are tortured, beheaded, or bombed.
Which brings me back to John Steinbeck. Now, more than ever, we need his passion, his commitment, and his uncompromising clarity of thought. This is from East of Eden:
“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.
“And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repression, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”
Our glory is under attack, and we can only fight back if we believe in our own essential goodness. Like John Steinbeck, I am a writer. Like John Steinbeck, I believe that we are potentially magnificent. As a writer, I believe that it is my job to inspire. But Steinbeck is so much better at it than I.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he said:
“The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
East of Eden is about greatness, perfectibility, morality, and choice. It is a hymn to the human spirit.
Go to the library. Get on the Internet. Download, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of this truly wonderful book. Celebrate the beauty of our beautiful inquiring minds with John Steinbeck, a great writer and a great thinker.
He fought the good fight.
And now it is our turn.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2016
Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com.